Let it not be said that art is only the province of intellectuals and aesthetes. The cockblocking of the nation by an artist, the wounded pride of a President and the outrage of many ordinary citizens has forced us all to mine a little deeper into the meaning of freedom of expression, and what it means to be offended. We have learned that for some people satire and irony are much too complicated. We have learned that for others art cannot have limits and infinite freedom must be given to its expression. We have learned that for some people any slight on the President is also a slight on the ANC and is also a slight all black people, even if this is not the intention. Perception is, as always, everything. For a few, stoning, threatening, destroying and defacing is the only way to make your point. So who is right?
We must exclude the antediluvians who provoke violence and incite hatred. While some might claim the artist started the whole business by being hateful, a few courses in the history of art should set them straight. Art isn’t just about pretty pictures: Often, the best art is provocative. You do not have any right not to be offended. Part of being an adult in a constitutional democracy is that occasionally people will say or do things you might not like, agree with, or find palatable. If someone promised you would never be ‘disrespected’ (a word of dubious foundation), they were lying to you.
You also have absolutely no right to be offended on behalf of another person. If you start with that, the controversy mostly melts away. It really isn’t about art, philosophy, respect or dignity. Nudity isn’t undignified, and even if you think it is, the work isn’t about penises. This is about you and I being free to choose what we’d like to think, see, and experience – and as long as that isn’t illegal it is about nobody else deciding that for you.
We don’t need to go into the President’s character, his past, race, or even a debate about artistic or moral freedom. It is much simpler. if you believe in freedom, you can’t allow someone else to censor things for the rest of us. If you treasure your freedom you will protect even the right of those who express ideas that offend you. That is what free people do.
When nazi soldiers raided Picasso’s studio, saw postcards of Guernica and asked him; “Haben sie das gemacht?”(did you make this?), Picasso replied: “Nein sie has haben gemacht” (no….. YOU did.)
It wasn’t just his work that made him the greatest artist of the 20th Century.